Soft Skills: How to Get ’Em

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We’re probably not doing you any favors if we say that you (assuming you’re an IT professional) need to build up your soft skills to position yourself for vocational mobility. After all, that seems to be a leitmotif running through techie career-development resources these days. In fact, much of that advice can be found in the august pages of CertMag.


But what is discussed less often is just how one goes about getting these soft skills, or for that matter, precisely what they are. This is because it’s much easier to wag the finger and say, “You ought to do X,” (a la Dr. Phil) than to precisely explain what X is or how one goes about achieving it.


Soft skills are kind of difficult to pin down to begin with. The term itself is somewhat loaded, and it can mean different things to different people. Soft skills can be as simple as smiling at and greeting a co-worker in the hall at the office, or they can be as complex as preparing and presenting an error-free, well-written proposal to the heads of your company.


Thus, it might be useful to offer a relatively clear, comprehensible definition for “soft skills.” Above all else, it’s about good written and verbal communication — if you pursue just one soft skill, make it this one. It also relates to professionalism and physical presentation, in other words, how you represent yourself in dress and demeanor. Finally, soft skills include interpersonal proficiencies such as empathy, kindness and a sense of humor. Obviously, we could go into more depth in defining soft skills, but these areas essentially constitute the core of this concept.


Some fortunate people out there are naturally gifted in one of these respects, and a very lucky few are exceptional in all of them. For those of us who aren’t quite so blessed, a little effort is required. Here are a few recommendations from us on how to firm up your soft skills.


First, what do all the world’s master communicators (Lincoln, Churchill, Gandhi, King) have in common? Simple: They were prodigious readers. Similarly, if you want to be a great writer and speaker, the main thing is to read frequently. You don’t have do go through the entire corpus of great literature — Abraham Lincoln didn’t read much besides the complete works of Shakespeare and the King James Bible, but he did read them both often throughout his lifetime.


Another suggestion would be to place yourself in situations where you can hone your communication talents. You could try to contribute articles to your favorite publication, or you can write a blog regularly. Additionally, one way to improve oratory is to join an organization such as the Toastmasters, which is devoted to developing its members’ public speaking skills.


When it comes to personal presentation, it’s pretty basic. Many companies have even spelled out a dress code in their office policies. If yours hasn’t, though, here are a few tips: No T-shirts. Jeans are usually OK, as long as there aren’t any holes in them. Wear shirts that don’t have serious stains, rips or general wear and tear. Ditto for shoes.


If you have an important meeting, wear a nice, dark, dry-cleaned suit with a pressed shirt and (for guys) a conservatively colored and designed tie. Shave no fewer than once every three days (guys again).


Interpersonal skills might be the trickiest because you can do everything right in your mind and still come up short. Maybe that joke you thought was hilarious fell flat when you told it to your co-workers. Perhaps that compliment you paid to a colleague wasn’t well-received for some reason.


Improving your ability in this area is a continual process because situations and people constantly are changing, and all your experience might not prepare you for what lies ahead. My advice would be when you’re in unfamiliar social situations at work, keep your ears and your mind open and your mouth closed.


Got any other tips about soft skills? Share them with us on the CertMag online forums at or write to us at editor (at) certmag (dot) com.

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